A painter and former journalist in Halifax is leading a project in which she’s painting the portraits of women who’ve made historic advancements in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Jo Napier is the founder of the Great Women Portrait Project and made a presentation about the project to HRM’s Women’s Advisory Committee during its virtual meeting on Thursday night.

Napier, a a former journalist who worked with the Chronicle Herald, Globe and Mail, and Ottawa Citizen, said the inspiration for the project started when she was covering stories about people in tech and noticed a gender gap in the industry. She eventually wrote a book featuring women in tech called Technology With Curves: Women Reshaping the Digital Landscape.

A white woman with long dark blonde hair and wearing a denim jacket
Jo Napier Credit: Contributed

“As a dot.com reporter, I just noticed I was always interviewing these fascinating men, and that this landscape, digital landscape, was taking shape exponentially, and I thought, ‘where are the women shaping this?’” Napier said in an interview on Friday.

“They better be onboard because it’s going to be a whole other world, yet again, defined through a male lens.”

Napier was living in Toronto when she wrote that book, but came back to Halifax to edit the manuscript. During that time, she decided to stay in the city.

‘Biggest blessing in my life’

In 2010, with her mother’s encouragement, she signed up for a painting session in Fall River that was led by Jeannie Hancock, who trained under Arthur Lismer, a member of the Group of Seven.

“It was this biggest blessing in my life,” Napier said. “[The class] was all these older women who really knew who they were.” 

She started painting, but didn’t have any great plan for her work, even though Hancock had her students creating five paintings a day. 

Napier had a daughter not long after, and recalls telling her bedtime stories. She wanted to share stories of great women in Nova Scotia, but none came to mind.

“I thought here’s this teachable moment. I could tell this little girl about great women and inspire her. I thought, ‘wow, 10 years in a Halifax newsroom, and I was very devoted to journalism, and I couldn’t think of a single story,’” Napier said. 

Napier went to the old Halifax Public Library and left a note for a reference librarian named Norma, who had helped her gather photos for her book cover. In her note, Napier told Norma she was looking for stories about great women of Nova Scotia.

“It turns out if you leave a note like that in the reference room of the Halifax library, it’s like catnip,” Napier said.

“All these female librarians who have all this knowledge and never had an opportunity to move it to the front of their agendas, they all chipped in, and the next thing I knew, I had a list of 25 women I had never heard of.” 

A painted portrait of a white woman with dark hair pulled up into a loose style and wearing a black sweater over a white blouse and a string of pearls.
Canadian medical pioneer Dr. Jennie Smillie. Credit: Jo Napier

Then Napier started painting. That first collection became the “Nova Scotia Nine” and was purchased by the Royal Bank for its national art collection. The nine women include Rita Joe, Aileen Meagher, Mabel Bell, Viola Desmond, Anna Leonowens, Muriel Duckworth, Edith Jessie Archibald, Margaret Marshall Saunders, and Marie-Henriette LeJeune-Ross.

“It was slowly dawning on me that this was a huge culture omission,” Napier said.  

Over the next few years, Napier did a few more shows, including at the Chase Gallery at the Nova Scotia Archives. 

“Each time I left a book out, and the comments from the women, and girls, were like fantastic,” Napier said. “There was a hunger there I never noticed before. It wasn’t just my hunger; it was the hunger of other women.” 

‘A great leap of faith’

As her daughter got older, Napier decided to stay on the track with the portraits. 

“I thought there is a need here, a legit reason to paint these women,” she said. 

This year, she pulled it all together, took what she called “a great leap of faith,” and gave her work a name: The Great Women Portrait Project. 

She also decided to ask other women to come on board and commission a portrait. 

“It caught fire right away,” Napier said.  

She used International Women’s Day on March 8 and the International Day of the Girl in Oct. 11 as bookends of sorts during which to paint and promote her work. She had a celebration in October at the Prow Gallery in Halifax.

Her paintings to date include portraits of Esther Marjorie Hill, first Canadian registered female architect, Doris Anderson, the former editor of Chatelaine magazine, Mary Ann Shadd, the first Black female newspaper publisher in North America, Dr. Leone Farrell, who developed a method to mass produce and distribute the polio vaccine, and Dr. Jennie Smillie, who completed the first major gynecological surgery in Canada.

A painted portrait of a woman with dark hair pulled back and wearing a red/pink top.
Canadian architect Esther Marjorie Hill. Credit: Jo Napier

Napier said her work is not “old-fashioned portraiture” and she’s not focused on the physical details on each woman.

“I am really interested in their spirit. Because it’s their spirit that carried over the obstacles that set them on a particular path,” Napier said.

In her research on each woman she paints, Napier learned about those obstacles. For example, she said Dr. Leone Farrell and her female colleagues had to wait in a hallway at a men’s only club where Dr. Jonas Salk was speaking before they could meet him in person.

And when Esther Hill graduated from the University of Toronto’s architecture school, the school’s president refused to attend the convocation.

“It took her about five to eight years for her to get into the architecture association to become a legit architect and to practice,” Napier said. 

“You can be frustrated with those details or you can think, that was then, this is now. And now is the time to take this woman’s face, take this woman’s story, and put it in a public space. When you talk about diversity and inclusion, this is a diversity and inclusion tool.”

‘Moved our world forward in really significant ways’

On her website, Napier has a gallery of photos of women whose portraits she’d like to paint. She said she feels a sense of gratitude to all the women whose portraits she’s painted so far.

“Even though we don’t know them, they moved our world forward in really significant ways,” Napier said.

“I find that really powerful, but also really poignant. I would say there’s not a single woman I have painted that I haven’t partly been driven to paint her by the desire to sit down next to her at a dinner party and have a chance over a crème brulee and a coffee to really be a journalist, sit next to her and ask her interesting questions,” Napier said. 

Napier said she’d also like to paint portraits of Indigenous inventors, including Olivia Poole, who, in 1957, patented her invention of the Jolly Jumper. Poole was one of the first Indigenous women to get a patent.

Napier will continue the Great Women Project in 2024, starting the commissions and paintings in March on International Women’s Day and having a party to celebrate in October, on International Day of the Girl.

Napier said she hopes the Great Women Project will inspire younger generations:

The world can no longer afford having a gender gap and women not coming to the table because they’re not paid as well as men. This stuff has to be quickly corrected. We need all our talent at the table. So, I really want young girls and young boys to see the powerful paths that women have paved in the world so that the girls will have a greater sense of inspiration and the boys will have a great sense of respect.” 

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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